Global student slump: More money hasn’t helped. What will?

Why We Wrote This

Improving student achievement is a complicated problem, but countries often apply a simple solution: money. With little progress being made despite more spending, what other options should be explored?

Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/AP/File
Students in the U.K., seen here taking exams in 2017, are continuing to lag behind their peers from European countries such as Estonia and Finland when it comes to math, reading, and science.

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When it comes to helping students become stronger readers, mathematicians, and scientists, which investments work best? Increased spending? A focus on teachers? More after-school programs? 

Many wealthy countries have been throwing money at sluggish education systems for the last two decades, to little effect. Math, reading, and science scores are virtually stagnant across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, despite spending that has jumped 15% per student on average. 

While analysts say spending is important, they increasingly suggest considering other approaches as well, such as shoring up teacher ranks and pay.

Top achieving OECD countries like Estonia and China have adopted such measures. As China has expanded its school system to include about 250 million students, the education ministry’s focus has honed in on “heightening teachers’ social status” and boosting their salaries, words plucked directly from the country’s national education plans. Estonia, which spends 30% less than the OECD average, has been putting money into “teacher salaries and providing equitable education” for all students, says Education Minister Mailis Reps. 

“Money does matter,” she says, “but the way of spending it matters more.” 

Sharfa Abbaker easily identifies what helped her be a successful student: her school’s high expectations and teachers who have been available at every turn.

When she first moved from Sudan to London, she spoke only Arabic. At 11 years old, she was tasked with adjusting to schooling delivered in a language she didn’t speak, while adapting to a new culture and living with parents who’d never attended college.

Within a few years, she was fluent in English and acing exams. Now 16, she’ll be prepping for A-levels a year earlier than expected. Sharfa attends Michaela Community School, a free state school in London known for its military-like discipline. Its students, from London’s second-poorest borough, had among the highest scores in England for non-selective state schools on 2019 national tests. 

Figuring out how to achieve good student outcomes is on the minds of educators around the world, given the growing body of evidence that shows wealthy countries have been throwing money at sluggish education systems with little effect. Resources are important to achievement, especially in less affluent countries. But observers say opening the coffers isn’t a specific enough answer to a complex problem, one that is often intertwined with politics and socioeconomic inequalities.

“Money does matter, but the way of spending it matters more,” says Mailis Reps, minister of education for Estonia, the small European country that has seen results in recent years with its focus on teacher salaries and early childhood education.

Autonomy and the ability to pivot quickly – both for countries, and individual schools, like Sharfa’s – allow for better student outcomes and lead to more focused decisions, analysts note. That’s happening in Estonia, and in China, which has also focused on improving the lot of teachers. Yet how should educators get good information about student progress, when standardized testing has become one of the most hotly-debated topics in American education? And how should societies balance out less-than-supportive home environments, which research shows ultimately matters more than anything else?

Switching gears is not always easy in a global environment where the go-to solution has been to increase funding. Despite spending that jumped 15% per student on average, math, reading, and science scores are virtually stagnant across Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, based on the December results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

“Almost everything takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” says Eric Hanushek, an economist at the Hoover Institution, the policy think tank at Stanford University in California. 

Easy options are sometimes the least effective – building fancy computer facilities, making classes smaller. “Decreasing class sizes is just about the most expensive thing you can do,” says Mr. Hanushek, referring to labor costs. But, he notes, parents and politicians love it. 

What’s harder to do, is what matters the most: Making changes significant enough that they rally parents, teachers, and administrators to help students improve. 

Estonia as a model

In Estonia, the country’s best-in-Europe PISA scores have made it an education star. A former Soviet Republic still struggling with high poverty rates, the country is careful with its budget. The government, which spends about 30% less per student than the OECD average, lately has been putting money into “teacher salaries and providing equitable education” for all students, says Ms. Reps. That includes policies that aim to make learning materials and extracurriculars free of charge, and enrolling nearly 90% of all 3-year-olds in early childhood education. Schools can decide how and when to spend money, whether it’s by offering teacher bonuses, building infrastructure, or increasing professional development time.

“Estonia’s is a very light, nimble, and responsive school system,” says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD statistician who created PISA. “Each school decides how they hire and who they hire, while competing and also collaborating with one another,” he says.   

Ludger Woessmann, an economics professor at the University of Munich who once wrote an article titled “Cash Alone Will Not Solve the Problem of Education,” is an advocate for autonomy.

Autonomy can give schools the needed flexibility to serve their populations best, whether it’s more extracurriculars, access to free textbooks, or mental health counseling, he writes in an email.

Yet success also requires skilled administrators, who are making the right strategic decisions with good information. What’s critical, the author explains, is that this “freedom” is linked with accountability for outcomes, such as with “externally comparative testing and central exit exams.”

One of the key areas that schools and districts need the ability to control financial decisions around is that of teachers, says Katharine Birbalsingh, the founder and headmistress of Michaela Community School, back in London. Ms. Birbalsingh says that despite negative press for her rigid methods, she’s enjoyed the freedom to focus on developing a strong leadership team and improve teacher training to help her students.

China boosts teachers

Great teaching is a concept that China, the top PISA finisher of late, has been driven to implement. Though PISA includes only four of China’s most prosperous provinces, to much criticism, the formerly impoverished country has come a long way in a few decades. 

As China has expanded its school system to include about 250 million students, the education ministry’s recent focus has honed in on system quality. It’s done so in part by “heightening teachers’ social status” and boosting their salaries – words plucked directly from its national education plans. Teachers in China are enjoying the highest social status in the world, as measured by the 2018 Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Status Index.

The system also focuses on training and professional development, and educators often enjoy prep time per week that’s among the highest in the world.

But what about teacher pay?

Educator pay is a hot-button issue globally, even as the correlation to student achievement is debated. The pay issue is complex, as it not only involves issues such as how to fund education, but also how should salaries best be distributed. (For example, the teachers’ unions would prioritize seniority, while reformers might prefer incentive-based pay.)

Mr. Hanushek, the economist, estimates teachers in the U.S. could make 22% more outside of teaching. Where teachers are paid lower than local market rates for labor, school performance can suffer, found one 2018 study published in the Journal of Public Economics.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence finds that higher pay keeps more teachers in the system, while another analysis across 39 countries hypothesized it also attracts more able individuals into teaching, which boosts student performance. “The idea is that each country gets the teachers it wants and deserves,” write the authors. 

Yet raising all salaries doesn’t automatically “change the quality of instruction,” says Thomas Dee, an economist and professor of education at Stanford. “Because decades of experience show there are serious logistical and political challenges to designing systems that drive teacher quality,” he says. “In part because that means higher pay for the best teachers, and escorting persistently low-quality teachers out the door.”

Mr. Dee has long advocated for compensating teachers based on how their students perform. Critics of “merit pay,” meanwhile, say it creates harmful competition between teachers, corrupts school culture, and over-emphasizes testing.

Washington, D.C. provides one of American education’s hotly-debated examples of merit pay, implemented under then-chancellor Michelle Rhee. A decade after launch, studies have shown that the District of Columbia’s teacher evaluation system — which includes $25,000 bonuses for the most “effective” teachers — has seen lower-performing teachers leave voluntarily. And, student outcomes have risen. 

Yet, despite all the investment in research around the money question, studies unequivocally show that what matters most is home environment, specifically, the involvement of the parents and how much they encourage learning. That raises other issues, including how to adjust for kids who don’t have constructive home environments, much less how politics play into related factors such as addressing socioeconomic inequality.

“Indeed, it’s all about family. It’s about the attitude the family has about education,” says Ms. Birbalsingh, the Michaela Community School headmistress. “And then, you need to combine that with a good school.”

Good schools, she adds, are all about teacher training. “The assumption is you can either get a ‘good teacher’ or a ‘bad teacher,’ but it’s really about how you train a teacher. It’s about teaching methods.”  

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